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COVID-19 stressors and parenting practices: Initial results from Penn State/Yale study of family wellbeing and child safety

November 30, 2020
by Joanna Meyer

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States in March, widespread closures of schools and childcare centers raised concern about the unintended consequences of the public health response on family wellbeing and child safety. Dr. Christian Connell of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network at Penn State University and Dr. Michael Strambler of the Partnership for Early Education Research (PEER) at Yale University partnered to examine the relationship between COVID-19 stressors, COVID-19 distress, parental neglect, and parenting practices by surveying a representative sample of families of children ages 0-18. The study is currently under review at a scientific journal, and Drs. Connell and Strambler believe that this is the largest regional investigation of its kind to date.

The survey was administered in two waves during the spring (late April and early June) to caregivers in six northeastern states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. Over 2,000 parents were recruited to complete the survey, which included questions related to the following areas:

  • COVID-19 stressors experienced by the survey respondent and by other household members, such as experiencing illness related to COVID, quarantine, job loss, impacts on schooling/childcare, etc.
  • COVID-19 distress due to COVID-19 concerns, such as “Fears about your own or loved ones’ health” and “Difficulty finding childcare because of school/daycare closures”
  • Parental neglect behaviors reported by parents in five areas: emotional, cognitive, supervisory, physical, and family-based neglect
  • Parental discipline practices, with questions focused on harsh discipline (psychological punishment and physical punishment) and positive discipline.

Exposure to COVID-19 stressors and COVID-19 stress varied across respondents, but the study team observed a moderate correlation between COVID-19 stressors and COVID-19 distress. When asked to consider the previous month, more than half of caregivers reported neglectful parenting behavior, with physical neglect and supervisory neglect being most common. More than half of caregivers reported using harsh discipline in the previous month, with psychological punishment occurring more frequently than physical discipline. In addition, more than two-thirds of caregivers reported using positive discipline practices in the previous month. Overall, the study team found few differences between the two survey waves in rates of COVID stressors and distress, neglectful parenting practices, and harsh discipline practices.

The study also examined the association of COVID-19 stressors and COVID-19 distress with neglect, harsh discipline, and positive discipline practices. Higher exposure to COVID-19 stressors and higher levels of COVID-19 distress were associated with increased risk of recent neglect. Specifically, higher rates of family exposure to COVID-19 stressors and distress were associated with increased odds of parents reporting physical neglect and family-based neglect, but not the odds of cognitive or supervisory neglect. And higher COVID-19 distress was actually linked to decreased odds of reported emotional neglect. Similarly, higher rates of household exposure to COVID-19 stressors and higher levels of COVID-19 distress were associated with increased risk of harsh discipline in the preceding 30 days. Importantly, higher exposure to COVID-19 stressors and COVID-19 distress were also associated with increased report of positive discipline strategies. This finding suggests that parents who have positive parenting practices in their repertoire are more likely to rely on these strategies to address stressors and parent-child conflicts.

In summary, the study found that higher levels of exposure to stressors and distress related to COVID-19 were associated with an increased likelihood of neglect and harsh discipline in the first months of the pandemic, as well as with increased likelihood of positive discipline. Drs. Connell and Strambler are continuing to explore additional research questions, including examining socioeconomic and racial differences regarding the outcomes reported here. Their hope is to contribute to an evidence base for subsequent research on how responses to public health crises can support family wellbeing, child safety, and educational outcomes.

This project was supported by seed funding from Penn State’s Huck Institute of Life Sciences and Social Science Research Institute for research on COVID-19. More information about the study is available on the Open Science Framework project page.

Submitted by Joanna Meyer on November 30, 2020